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Celtic tigers

Interview: the Chieftains at Symphony Hall — again
March 12, 2008 1:17:07 PM

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At 69, Paddy Moloney is still the world’s foremost uilleann-pipes player. He started playing at 10, around Dublin. In 1962 he co-founded the Chieftains, who would spread traditional Celtic music throughout the world. They’ve released 45 albums — the latest a two-CD compilation called The Essential Chieftains — and won six Grammys, an Emmy, and an Oscar, They’ve played with Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, the Corrs, Marianne Faithfull, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, and the Boston Pops, to name a few. I caught up with Moloney — the remaining original — on the phone from Princeton, New Jersey, where the band had just played the 12th date of a 17-date US tour.

So, you’re playing Boston on March 14, right around St. Patrick’s Day. This is not a shock.
I think 1975 was when we first played in Boston, and we’re 46 years together now as the band. To come to Symphony Hall again, there’s magic about that place. This year, it’s a big show. It’s not just the four old Chieftains bashing away anymore.

It’s called “The Celtic-Scottish Connection Tour”?
We’re going down the road this time with the Scottish. Alyth McCormack comes from one of the islands off the West Coast of Scotland [Lewis] and sings in Scots Gaelic and English. She’s with two great musicians, Brian Mcalpine and Jonny Hardie, who play fiddle, accordion, guitar, and keyboards. They’re on stage from the word go, right at the top of the show. We have a guest singer nobody’s ever heard, Siobhán O’Brien. She has a magic voice. We lost our dear friend [harpist] Ding Dong [Derek] Bell five years ago, and this lovely girl Tríona Marshall has come in and gone through the roof. We’ve been having the time of our life on this tour.

You’ve become the international ambassadors of Irish traditional music. Did you ever envision that?
No, that first album we made in ’62, you might say was a one-off. We never expected this to happen. But I did have that dream. I said there was something there for this music, that I wanted to put it on a major stage throughout the world. We desired something bigger and better than music that people play in pubs. Radio programmers like the late John Peel used to play the odd track from the Chieftains in with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and he just loved what we did. And Melody Maker voted us group of the year in ’75. That kind of attention we were getting, I thought we were all going mad.

People’s perceptions have changed since you began. What you do is hip.
Back home in Ireland, there’s this whole trend of musicians playing [traditional] instruments. It’s “cool,” whereas when we were going around in those early days with a fiddle or pipes under your arm, you’d get a slagging from your mates. Now, they’re all looking for tickets for your concerts.

The Chieftains have become known for multiple collaborations, with rockers and artists of all generations.
We’ve been asked to do something in a respectful way; it wasn’t rock and roll. What they loved about us was the sound we created. These brilliant artists, we ask them to come to our party and perform our music.

Yet you’ve certainly had an influence on Celtic rock and roll. Consider the Pogues.
I remember one time in London various people like Roger Daltrey came in to do an evening with us. For our penance, the Pogues came and we sat on stage and the whole stage at the Brixton Academy was bouncing. It was a stand-up gig for 4000 people. The Pogues, that was rough-and-ready time. We did a 45-minute set, they did a 45-minute set, then we got together and it was hilarious, that’s all I can say. An experience. I wouldn’t want to do it any other night. I’m a devil for punishment, let’s put it that way. I’m pretty particular about not drinking before the concert, but the Pogues used to nip off to their little bar side-stage.

I’m not sure I’ve read anything negative about the Chieftains. How fucking beloved are you?
[Laughs.] Now you’re talking Irish! Well, we might put on a good safe one [show], and this works for us — we’re still in the business after 46 years. But we can let loose when we want to. We do it in a nice way. We do it after the final concert at Carnegie Hall [March 17]. We go on the town and we hit every establishment that has a green sign out. People follow us around. The royal tour of New York.

You’ve done this forever. When or how will it end?
I think I’ll die with my boots on.

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